Leslie Gore died recently and to those unfamiliar with the name who bothered to glance at her obituary she must have seemed little more than a 1960’s cliché. For a brief moment when it was the best of times, and the worst of times, to be a teenager in America, Leslie Gore was the country’s most popular female singer, the embodiment of the wholesome all-American girl. But far from a one-off fleeting teenage idol, Leslie Gore was a multitalented performer and bold pioneer for feminism and gay rights.
In an unlikely intersection of careers, Leslie, a white suburban New Jersey girl, was discovered by the African-American musical legend Qunicy Jones, who did freelance arranging for many great 1950’s black musical artists including Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles. After his jazz band failed commercially, Jones became a talent scout for Mercury Records. With a keen musical sense, Jones realized the possibilities of the youth market, and among all the demo voices he listened to, sixteen year-old Leslie’s stood out. Before leaving for Hollywood, and eventually winning 27 Grammies, Jones produced finely crafted, multi-tracked, musically sophisticated records featuring Leslie’s stylish vocals, including seven top 20 hits in two years.
Their first, and most successful collaboration was her million-selling number one hit, “It’s My Party”, about a girl whose birthday party is ruined when her boyfriend walks in with another girl. In the summer of 1963 America was turning serious, embroiled in the civil rights struggle and entering Vietnam, but the unforgettable refrain of that song, “I’ll cry if I want to, you would cry too if it happened to you” was heard everywhere. While still in high school, Leslie became the top female pop star in America. However in a male dominated industry, she was paid poorly and had little control over her career, “It was always a battle to get anything respected. Even though I was a big seller, they only cared about males. They were pushing males.”
Ironically, her turning point came in early 1964, with a completely different type of song, “You Don’t Own Me”, an emotional demand for freedom from a controlling boyfriend. Way ahead of its time, the song has become an iconic anthem of female empowerment, covered by everyone from Joan Jett to Amy Winehouse, most notably in a memorable song-and-dance by Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton in the 1996 movie, First Wives Club. Leslie herself did a music video voiceover when the song was used in the 2012 presidential campaign.
“You Don’t Own Me” was a huge hit, reaching number two in the country. The song that kept it from number one was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, by a new quartet from Liverpool. It is a testimony to Leslie Gore that “You Don’t Own Me” has become a cultural touchstone comparable to that first American entry by The Beatles.
For Leslie, the future was clear. The turbulence in America highlighted by the Kennedy assassination left the country with little desire for songs about teenage angst. In addition, The Beatles and the British Invasion changed American tastes and left many American popular musicians, especially women, in the lurch. After the Beatles’ appearance, for much of the mid-1960’s American female singers and girl groups essentially disappeared; besides the Motown-backed Supremes, the only female stars were Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, both British. Realizing this, Leslie did something inconceivable for a pop star near the height of her fame- she became a literature major at Sarah Lawrence College (imagine Miley Cyrus doing that).
Her youthful success over, Leslie’s career was just beginning. She continued making records, including the infectious “Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows”, and “California Nights” (which she sang on television as a guest villainess on Batman), both by a new composer, Marvin Hamlisch. She continued public performances and was beloved by audiences, world over. She turned to songwriting and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1980.
Leslie came out as gay in a 2005 interview on the website afterellen.com . She became a progressive activist for LGBT and women’s rights, including hosting the PBS television show In The Life. In the interview she said, “I meet a lot of young people in the Midwest, and I saw what a difference a show like In the Life can make to their lives in some of these small towns where, you know, there are probably two gay people in the whole damn town. It’s made real inroads for them. They come and they talk to me about this stuff, so I know how important it is.”
With her resume, it’s shocking she is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps it’s because she sang about trivial, silly sentiments - unfaithful boyfriends, teenage rejection, or sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows - in an era when those sentiments mattered to young listeners. Such frivolousness may not fit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame image - and the Hall is about nothing if not image -but somehow those trivial, silly sentiments remain compelling and have managed to endure over time.
Leslie Gore, a courageous woman and great talent, was anything but a cliché. Her style is reminiscent of a bygone era and to paraphrase her first hit from that era - life was her party, and she did what she wanted.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here